Kombai S Anwar
As you turn off the Triplicane High Road into the Wallajah Mosque compound in Chennai, you can’t miss the elegant old building, painted white, that stands defiantly graceful amidst the concrete jungle. The building whose grand entrance faces the mosque, that once welcomed foreign dignitaries, stands closed today, and with its back entrance open on the Vallabha Agraharam street, it operates as a lodge for weary travellers — both foreign and Indian. Wonder if any of them are aware of its rich heritage that connects Madras with the Turkic Ottoman Empire. As the smaller picture reveals this was once the grand Ottoman Turkic consulate in Madras.
Madras’s association with the Ottoman Empire dates back to the time of the Nawabs of Arcot, when they made the city their home in the mid-18th century. As the two most revered holy sites of Muslims, namely Mecca and Medina, were under the protection of the Ottoman Empire, the Nawabs corresponded with the Ottomans regarding Haj pilgrimage and a few other issues. By virtue of having the holy sites under their control, the Ottomans styled themselves as Caliphs, giving them a religious authority.
It was perhaps this and the business opportunities offered by the Ottoman Empire that led Mohamed Badsha Sahib to represent Turkish interests in Madras. Mohamed Badsha Sahib who started his business on Triplicane High Road in 1812 struck fortune in 1866 when he went on a tour of West Asia. He began dealing in indigo with Cairo, Asia Minor and Baghdad. From the fortune made, Badsha made some significant contribution to the Ottomans in the Turko-Russian war. In recognition of his contribution, he received the ‘Hamidea Decoration’ from the Sultan of Turkey and was also granted the title of “Effendi.”
Upon his retirement in 1881, his sons expanded the business and also continued to represent Turkish interests. Their office was at Erabalu Chetty Street and the Turkish Consulate was on Triplicane High Road. As Turkey was trying to modernise, the sons pitched in with their support, collecting money from India for the Hamede-Hedjaz Railway project that was intended to connect the holy cities in Arabia with Turkey as well as move troops through the Arab territories. This was the railway line that the famed ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ would attack as part of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman caliphate. The Ottoman Sultan honoured Khan Bahadur Md Abdul Aziz Badsha (son of founder), who was the Consul of Turkey in 1913 with the ‘Order of Osmanieh’ and his brother Kuddus Badsha, the Vice-Consul, was awarded a gold medal for the same. Such was the Turkish involvement in Ottoman affairs.
However the Badshas with their huge business interests in the Madras presidency were no less in their contributions to the Madras society. Be it the Mahajana Sabha, Anjuman, the Indian National Congress, the Madras Presidency Muslim League, running educational institutions, South Indian Chamber of Commerce or being Sheriff of Madras (in 1913), they were actively involved in every aspect of Madras society. Interestingly, they were also considered loyal subjects of the English crown and honoured by the British with the title ‘Khan Bahadur.’
This fine balancing by the Badshas would be severely tested when World War I broke out pitting the Turks against the English and subsequent Khilafat agitation (for the restoration of the Caliphate) of the Indian nationalists led by the Ali brothers and Gandhiji agitating against the British Crown. Wonder what transpired in the Ottoman Turkish Consulate in Madras under such trying times. The flag was pulled down long ago but if only records exist of what transpired within the four walls of the Consulate, it will not only enrich Madras history but also our understanding of the ‘Great Game’ being played out by the Western powers, Turks and the Russians even today.